They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

“You don’t know Custer. You get him fighting mad, and there isn’t anything he won’t do!”

George Armstrong Custer (Errol Flynn) marries his sweetheart (Olivia de Havilland) after graduating from West Point Academy, and is assigned by General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet) to join the 2nd U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War, where he takes command at Gettysburg and becomes a hero. He brokers peace with Sioux leader Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn), but tensions arise when his former West Point rival (Arthur Kennedy) collaborates with corrupt politicians to break their treaty, and Custer ends up leading the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Anthony Quinn Films
  • Arthur Kennedy Films
  • Biopics
  • Cavalry
  • Civil War
  • Errol Flynn Films
  • Native Americans
  • Olivia de Havilland Films
  • Raoul Walsh Films
  • Sydney Greenstreet Films
  • Westerns

Raoul Walsh directed this highly historically inaccurate “biopic” about General George Armstrong Custer, who died during the Battle of Little Big Horn (a.k.a. “Custer’s Last Stand”) in 1876. As DVD Savant describes it:

“Flynn’s Custer effortlessly contains a ridiculous number of inconsistencies. He’s a born glory-hound but a man of honor who won’t sell out to corruption in business or government. He gladly battles Indians but constantly champions their nobility and injust treatment. He’s a drunkard [in real life he didn’t drink] forever closing the bars … and would rather eat onions than drink anyway. They Died With Their Boots On probably gives historians heart attacks and makes Native American activists spit blood. The charismatic Flynn makes their protests seem beside the point.”

Quinn is suitably noble-looking as Crazy Horse, but is given minimal screen-time and only speaks a few broken lines, such as the following: “Crazy Horse, war chief Sioux, speak with Long Hair, war chief Great White Father.”

Kennedy’s sneering role as a corrupt profiteer is equally thankless:

… and Charley Grapewin as “California Joe” merely serves as comedic relief:

Meanwhile, this was Flynn and de Havilland’s eighth and final romantic pairing together — after co-starring in Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four’s a Crowd (1938) [not listed in GFTFF], Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and Santa Fe Trail (1940) — and their chemistry is as sure as ever:

What’s most impressive about this film, however, are the battle sequences, which were so harrowing they caused three real-life deaths and at least 80 injuries.

Note: For a Native American perspective on the Battle of Little Big Horn, click here to listen to a revealing interview with Sitting Bull’s great-grandson.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Bert Glennon’s cinematography

  • The impressive final battle sequence

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look. Listed as a film with Historical Importance, a Cult Movie, and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “They Died With Their Boots On (1941)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see.

    I had always avoided this film, until now. At various points, in various places, I had read about how particularly inaccurate this film is. Since I had little interest in Custer anyway, it didn’t bother me to skip this film.

    It’s one thing for a film to be slightly or somewhat inaccurate. It’s another for wild liberties to be taken. And, esp. with age, I have become less and less tolerant of stretched fictionalized accounts.

    But, I did watch it – more or less as fiction. As fiction, it’s mildly engaging… when it isn’t tiresome.

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